Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: The Women [1939]

WomenNineteen Thirty Nine’s The Women, based on a play of the same name, had to be adapted for the screen to make it acceptable for the Production Code and, although uncredited, F.Scott Fitzgerald contributed to the writing of the screenplay.

The film also contains some of the most entertaining verbal duels ever depicted onscreen, between such acting greats as Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard. AND it is one of the most well-loved comedies of all time, due in no small part to the unique relationships the characters have with each other, and the complex web of competition that occurs between every character… with every other character.

That’s a lot of fighting. A lot of very funny fighting.

Far and away the most vitally important part of the picture is that of the over 130 roles in this film… every single one is played by a woman. Every animal in the film is female and every piece of artwork in the background is representative of the female form. Men might be spoken to over the phone or send a letter to a character but they have no voice.

How wonderfully ‘Girl Power’.

Oh, no, except… the women in the film talk so much about their husbands, it may take a while for the viewer to notice that men are actually missing.

The Bechdel test was devised in Nineteen Eighty Five and had a momentous impact on helping viewers become aware of the dearth of female authentic female relationships on screen. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have (1) at least two named women who (2) have a conversation with each other (3) about something other than a man.

It’s surprisingly hard to find films that fit the criteria. It points out that not only are individual women not accurately represented but the way women interact with each other as friends, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers is more than just ignored. As we see in this film, their relationships sour and become gratuitously nasty when hinged around men. These women will destroy each others’ lives if their romance with ‘their man’ is threatened.

Pray, don’t mistake me, The Women is still fabulous. The performances are terrific, it’s wonderfully funny… despite being filmed in black and white there is a ten minute fashion parade filmed in Technicolor, featuring costume designer Adrian’s most extraordinary designs- and they are remarkable, truly!

Just be aware that, although The Women is a completely feminine picture, and very progressive in its handling of both divorce and extramarital affairs, it was still very much a picture made under the Hays Code of extreme censorship. I shalln’t ruin the ending for you but, well, no problem is unresolved…

That’s part of the fun though, isn’t it? The network of duels in this film is tightly woven, and the plot comes together through exploration of who is dueling with whom!

Director George Cukor is magnificent in channeling all these feuds into fun, creative scenes. Though there are some serious disputes in the film, the sharpness of the script and slapstick humour keeps the film from getting too mean.